Is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Affecting My Teenager?

Person washing his hands

Does your teen struggle with OCD?  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It can be difficult in this age of acronyms to know when your teenager’s behavior is appropriate for their developmental stage of life of when it’s something that a parent should be concerned about.   With anxiety disorders like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), it is even harder to find.  The difference between the two is the impact it has on the child’s daily life.

What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that causes those who suffer from it to experience persistent anxiety, fear, or distressing thoughts and/or exhibit a ritualized behavior as a method to control their anxiety.  For example, a child might be so afraid of germs, they wash their hands every 15 minutes.  The obsessive nature of these thoughts and their compulsion to perform the ritual interfere with the teenager’s daily life.

Someone who is afraid of germs may develop a ritual that involves washing their hands a certain number of times at certain points over the course of the day.  A child who is worried about their house burning down may develop a ritual involving checking their smoke alarms and fire extinguishers to ensure they are operating.  It is important to remember that someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder does not believe they can control their compulsions and that these rituals offer only a temporary respite from their anxiety.

People with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, both children and adults, may realize that their behavior is out of the ordinary but this is not always the case in children.   OCD may be accompanied by other conditions including depression and eating disorders and affects the same number of males and females.  In many cases, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder first presents during adolescence or the teen years.

What Causes Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a brain disorder.  Research has shown that it does tend to run in families but there is no clear indication of why one person develops the condition and another doesn’t.  But the truth is clear, that OCD is no one’s fault, and especially does not occur because of something a parent did, or did not do.

What are the Symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

A person suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder will display many of the following symptoms:

  • Repetitive thoughts that are distressing or cause anxiety about several different things.  Common obsessive topics include germs, dirt, crime, sexual acts, cleanliness, violence, or hurting others.
  • Ritual behavior patterns associated with their obsessions that they complete over and over to alleviate the anxiety.  Rituals can involve actions like repetitive hand washing, locking and unlocking doors or windows, counting, and performing things in a specific way again and again.
  • Performing rituals can be distressing and are not a source of comfort or pleasure although they do alleviate feelings of anxiety temporarily.
  • Obsessive thoughts and rituals occupy at least one hour a day and impact the person’s daily life.

Symptoms may come and go over time and it is not uncommon for people suffering from OCD to use avoidance techniques to try and keep their anxiety from being triggered.

How is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Diagnosed?

As with many mental health conditions, start with your medical provider who can rule out any physical conditions that may be contributing or causing the symptoms.  This doctor can refer you to a mental health practitioner for diagnosis and treatment.

How is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Treated?

Traditional treatment for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder involves both medication and exposure therapy.  This type of therapy is often combined with cognitive behavioral therapy to provide desensitization and alternative coping strategies.  Recent research supported by the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Mental Health shows that children and teens respond most effectively to treatment with antidepressants in conjunction with therapy.

If you are concerned that your child or teen is experiencing obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors, work with a professional who can assess your child’s behavior and advise you on the appropriate course of action.

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